The Fiat Abarth is a whoop to drive in the city

Fiat 500 Abarth Fiat 500 Abarth Photo Credit: Jose Moreno

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For decades beginning in the 1960s, the name Abarth represented an easy way to improve a car's performance while making it sound terrific.

All you had to do was swap your original exhaust system for one made by Abarth of Italy. Not only did it boost horsepower, you got the sweetest tailpipe sounds you could imagine. Practically everybody pronounced the name Ay-barth.

Now Abarth is back as a hot version of the 2012 Fiat 500, a tiny two-door economy hatchback that probably has no business pretending to be a performance car.

Sure enough, there's that raucous exhaust, making its own music, playing different notes as you work the throttle and shift through the gears. The effect is to make you feel as if you're going faster than you should, and often you are. It also tends to intimidate any driver within earshot.

We're also forced to learn a different pronunciation. It now officially is Ah-bart, which sounds way strange to a lot of older ears.

The founder of the company in 1949 was Karl Abarth, an Austrian transplanted to Italy who won fame as a motorcycle racer and racecar builder. He also designed and marketed high-performance exhaust systems. After Fiat introduced the tiny 500 in 1958, Abarth modified it into a successful racer. Fiat bought Abarth's company in 1971.

Now Fiat, which dropped out of the US in 1985 but has merged with Chrysler, returns to these shores with a thoroughly modern 500. It started with an economy hatchback and convertible, but it was foreordained that it eventually would deliver an Abarth model.

Except for the basic styling, the new Abarth bears little resemblance to its less rakish sibling. It has been re-worked and tuned from bumper to bumper and pavement to roof.

The 1.4 liter Multiair four-cylinder engine sports a turbocharger that helps boost the horsepower to 160 from the base car's 101. It also delivers 170 pound-feet of torque, or twisting force, which gives it a powerful feel off the line. Fiat reckons its zero-to-60 acceleration at 7.2 seconds, with a top speed of 129.

Everything else about the Abarth has been tweaked and strengthened to improve handling and braking. Enhancements include tightened electric power steering, a stiffer suspension system with high- performance shock absorbers and beefier brakes, lightweight wheels with wider all-season tires, and a revised shift linkage.

All of this combines to transform the Fiat 500 from a so-so economy car into a raucous imitation of a water bug that can scoot around and shoot holes in traffic while surprising a lot of supposedly superior machinery in the stoplight sprints.

It is most at home on an autocross course, where the driver can fling it around curves, stand on the throttle and let the front wheels drag the rest of the car behind them. It is, quite simply, a whoop to drive. There is some slight turbo lag, so you have to shift gears to keep the engine in its most efficient power range. An automatic transmission is not available.

But it is less endearing on the open road. The mellifluous exhaust that so captivates as you blast around in urban traffic settles to a rasping thrum that echoes throughout the interior at steady freeway speeds. It's okay for short distances, but with the harsh ride could become fatiguing on a long trip.

You'd expect the 12-foot-long Abarth to be able to turn on a manhole cover, but it has a surprisingly large turning circle diameter of 37.6 feet.

Fuel economy, given the performance, is exceptional at 28/34 miles to the gallon on the EPA's city/highway cycle. And the Abarth can carry four people.

The base price is $22,700, which includes full safety equipment; a five-speed manual gearbox; hill-start assist, which prevents the car from rolling backward when moving off uphill; a turbo boost gauge; power windows and remote locking, and a premium Bose audio system.

Options on the test car, which brought the price up to $26,900, included a power sunroof, automatic climate control, a Tom-Tom Navigation system that plugged into the dash but could be removed and hidden away, custom alloy wheels, and leather high-back bucket seats with big bolsters to clutch the torso.

The sunroof shade was made of a sort of flimsy fishnet material that did little to block the sun, making for a hot interior. Similarly, the tiny sun visors do not slide on their support rods to block sun from the side.

The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope, making it difficult for some people to find an optimum driving position. Some of the instrument readouts are maddeningly difficult to decipher, and the audio system has an array of buttons but no knobs.

Specifications

Model: 2012 Fiat Abarth two-door hatchback.

Engine: 1.4-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged, 160 horsepower.

Transmission: Five-speed manual.

Overall length: 12 feet.

EPA passenger/cargo volume: 75/10 cubic feet.

Weight: 2,512 pounds.

EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 28/34 miles to the gallon. Premium gasoline recommended.

Base price, including destination charge: $22,700.

Price as tested: $26,900.

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